GREEN BAY – Donald Driver understands that the National Football League is a business, and he's seen firsthand how it works.
That’s why the 14-year NFL veteran, who has spent his entire career with the Green Bay Packers, hasn’t complained – at least not publicly – about his decrease in playing time.
“It’s frustrating because (of) the type of person you are. You’re very competitive,” Driver said this week, in advance of Sunday’s game against the Chicago Bears at Soldier Field. “But that’s the way the business goes and sooner or later you understand that.
“Early in your career you don’t – you just think you’re the man, and you’re going to continue to be the man – and sooner or later it comes to an end. When that comes to an end, you’ve got to understand the business side of it. I understand the business side of it.”
He also understands the reality of it, and that reality is this: Driver’s production has decreased every year since 2007.
In 2006, Driver had 92 receptions for 1,295 yards. From the 2009 to 2010 season, the wide receiver’s production dropped almost in half, from 70 receptions for 1,061 yards to 51 catches for 565 yards.
So far this season, Driver has caught eight passes for 77 yards in 150 snaps of playing time. Part of this comes from the fact Driver is an aging wide receiver on a team that has a draft-and-develop philosophy and plays young players early and often. Driver also has been playing with a broken thumb, and was inactive for the team’s Dec. 2 game against Minnesota – only the fourth time since the 2002 season that’s happened (and the first since Nov. 7, 2010).
And even though Driver only played three snaps in the Packers’ Dec. 9 win over the Detroit Lions, the wide receiver said on Wednesday his thumb was “great.” He is listed as questionable on the team’s official injury report.
The day after Driver signed a re-structured deal to stay with the Packers this spring, he said he had accepted that he wasn’t going to be “that guy” anymore, but felt he still could contribute to the team.
“I think at the end of the day, I can still play at a high level,” Driver said at the time. “I don't think I've proven that I can't. I've done it, week-in and week-out.
“Now, balls getting thrown to me? I can't control that. Back in the days, I used to be the guy. I had three guys on me, the ball was getting thrown to me anyway. It's not like that anymore. You don't have to be the guy to win games, and I think we realized that last year.”
After only playing three snaps in the Packers’ season-opening loss to the San Francisco 49ers, he told NFL.com that he was surprised by the lack of playing time.
“(I’ve) played in this league a long time and not to play is tough," Driver said. “No one expects it to happen, but if it happens, you deal with it. I'm dealing with it in a good way."
As the season has progressed, and Driver’s playing time has not gone up significantly – even with injuries to Greg Jennings and Jordy Nelson – he hasn’t changed his tune. The wide receiver, whose season-high snaps was 27 against Jacksonville on Oct. 28, said he was happy to contribute on any level.
“I didn’t think it would happen, but then you see it happen to different guys,” Driver said of veteran players being phased out. “I played with Reggie (White), I played with Brett (Favre), I played with LeRoy Butler, Santana Dotson. All those great guys. Antonio Freeman, and then they’re all gone. Sometimes you don’t walk out when you want to walk out. It happens, and you’ve just got to move on.”
But despite this reality, Driver said that he is at peace with how this season has played out and doesn’t wish he had been released.
“I think you have to be comfortable in the decision,” Driver said. “I think some people can’t handle it a certain way. Either you handle it in a negative or positive (way). I just decided that I’ll handle it in a positive way and hoping that it works out for me.”
“I’m happy. The good part about it is that I’ve always been a Packer, and I think I’ll stay a Packer for the rest of my life.”
Sarah Barshop covers the Packers for ESPNWisconsin.com. Follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/sarahbarshop.